Home > 2014 > Personal Finance

A Secret Debt Threatened My Marriage

Advertiser Disclosure Comments 1 Comment

For my first engagement, my ex proposed to me on a gondola in Venice, Italy, with the diamond solitaire I’d said I didn’t want, the entire thing a stage set to match the movie in his mind. Years later, with Erik — a Buddhist and an English teacher — there was no flashy proposal, just two people agreeing over burgers that we loved each other enough to marry.

A few weeks before our wedding, Erik came home from work, cuddled up to me on the couch and sighed heavily. “A co-worker’s wife dropped a financial bomb on him today,” he said.

“Oh really?” I suddenly could not swallow.

“She had $5,000 worth of credit card debt she’d kept secret from him. He thought they were debt-free.”

“Five thousand?” My cheeks could not sustain this blank expression for long.

“Can you imagine keeping such a secret?”

Could I imagine it? I was living it. I don’t know how long I sat there, silent. We were going to be married in less than a month. If he was scandalized by $5,000, my own secret could be a game changer.

Saying It Out Loud

“I have some credit card debt too,” I said, my voice a shiver.

My fiancé pulled back and away. “What? How much?”

My voice had clamped down to a choked stream. “I don’t know, but I think it’s … more … than $5,000.”

“How much more?” His voice was tight, controlled.

“Maybe … twice that?”

“Ten thousand dollars?” His usually tender expression had evaporated, smile crimped into a grimace. “Why don’t you know how much?”

“I have … three cards.”

My fiancé’s pale skin flushed a scarlet reserved for anger he’d only displayed a few times, over power plays in his family. I shrank to atomic scale in my shame.

When I met Erik, him only eight months returned from the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic, he owned exactly one sleeping pallet, a trunk that doubled as a dresser, a desk, an old Royal typewriter, and one shelf of books. Minimalist was an understatement. He balanced his checkbook every month in neatly printed ink and paid off his credit card at the end of every month if he used it at all.

Tethered to the Past

“Debt is like living in the past.” His hands now flapped their emphasis in the air. “How can we move forward into the future if you’re stuck in the past?”

A sweeping terror careened through me, a breeze launching a wildfire. What was he saying?

“I want you to find out exactly how much debt you have.”

I was keenly aware of the emphasis on you, a dividing wall slamming down between us.

As I rifled through the statements in the box I had kept shoved at the back of my cluttered closet, I flashed on four years earlier. My mom had called, needing a safe place to stay after outpatient methadone treatment for a drug relapse after nearly a decade of sobriety. She was weepy and shaky, pale and soft-spoken. I wanted to witness this newborn thing in her in the hopes that it might birth a change in me, too.

At the ATM, she sighed and shook her head at the receipt. “Overdrawn. By a lot,” she said. “It’s just part of it.”

“Part of what?”

“Breaking through the denial.”

Now I faced a puncture of my own denial. With fingers so sweaty they skipped across the calculator keys, I tallied up my shame: nearly $15,000. And $15,000 of what, exactly? I’d been racking up this debt bit by bit for the four years since I’d left my ex, who had controlled everything, from how I dressed to the color of our kitchen napkins. I carelessly padded my own hollow spaces, rewarded myself with material sprees to flesh out my own preferences.

I brought the tally to my fiancé, too hunchbacked in my shame to look him in the eye. The skin of his mouth puckered white. “Wow,” he said, and then fell silent for so long I could hear blood pounding in my ears. “I need to sleep on this.”

He went to bed, but I stayed up hugging myself on the couch and shedding tears that followed visions of him storming out of our apartment, never to return. But beneath the terror and wet-muck shame was a strange calm, a twisted relief. I’d been caught.

Once, at age 9, I was caught stealing cash from my friend’s parents’ crack-motel till. Another time, was caught slipping more than a few twenties out of my father’s dresser drawer. His words echoed, “I think you wanted to be caught. To get attention.”

But this wasn’t the kind of attention I wanted from my fiancé.

The next day he answered me only in terse, one-word replies. Though I knew I deserved it, this was all painfully reminiscent of my time with my ex, who had used silence as a form of punishment when I did not conform to his desires.

Several days later, unable to sleep from a full-bodied anxiety that rolled violently through my dreams, I stopped my fiancé before work. “Please,” I said. “I can’t stand you looking at me like I’m a dog that rolled in [excrement]. I know I betrayed your trust. But your silence is worse than anything you could say to me.”

Second Thoughts

His shoulders visibly slumped. “I will give you this.” He rubbed a hand roughly across his chin. “You were brave to tell me before we got married, knowing how I feel about security. But it’s really unsettled me. It makes me think twice about linking our financial fates.”

Hitching sobs escaped me. Was he saying he didn’t want to marry me?

“But I know that you had no models for taking care of yourself in this way. I just need a little time.”

In the remaining weeks leading up to our wedding, we tossed around ideas and solutions, leaning toward having a wedding ceremony as planned but not legally marrying until I’d paid off my debt. Meanwhile, I linked up with a debt consolidation company.

The week before our wedding, we met with the woman who would marry us, the abbott of a Zen Buddhist center in Marin County.

When we revealed our plan to withhold legal marriage, she suggested, “You’re in it together, no matter how Jordan pays off her debt. I’d just like to point that out.” My soon-to-be husband took my hand across her table and exhaled shaky breaths.

We married in his mother’s backyard on August 14, 1999, in ceremony and in the eyes of the law.

Two years later, I sent the final check on my debt, though it was only the beginning of learning how to speak our shameful secrets into the light.

This post originally appeared on TheBillfold.

More from TheBillfold:

Image: IuriiSokolov

Comments on articles and responses to those comments are not provided or commissioned by a bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by a bank advertiser. It is not a bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Please note that our comments are moderated, so it may take a little time before you see them on the page. Thanks for your patience.

  • Tonawanda Kardex

    Buddhist eating a burger? Right there, I call “bs”.

Certain credit cards and other financial products mentioned in this and other articles on Credit.com News & Advice may also be offered through Credit.com product pages, and Credit.com will be compensated if our users apply for and ultimately sign up for any of these cards or products. However, this relationship does not result in any preferential editorial treatment.

Hello, Reader!

Thanks for checking out Credit.com. We hope you find the site and the journalism we produce useful. We wanted to take some time to tell you a bit about ourselves.

Our People

The Credit.com editorial team is staffed by a team of editors and reporters, each with many years of financial reporting experience. We’ve worked for places like the New York Times, American Banker, Frontline, TheStreet.com, Business Insider, ABC News, NBC News, CNBC and many others. We also employ a few freelancers and more than 50 contributors (these are typically subject matter experts from the worlds of finance, academia, politics, business and elsewhere).

Our Reporting

We take great pains to ensure that the articles, video and graphics you see on Credit.com are thoroughly reported and fact-checked. Each story is read by two separate editors, and we adhere to the highest editorial standards. We’re not perfect, however, and if you see something that you think is wrong, please email us at editorial team [at] credit [dot] com,

The Credit.com editorial team is committed to providing our readers and viewers with sound, well-reported and understandable information designed to inform and empower. We won’t tell you what to do. We will, however, do our best to explain the consequences of various actions, thereby arming you with the information you need to make decisions that are in your best interests. We also write about things relating to money and finance we think are interesting and want to share.

In addition to appearing on Credit.com, our articles are syndicated to dozens of other news sites. We have more than 100 partners, including MSN, ABC News, CBS News, Yahoo, Marketwatch, Scripps, Money Magazine and many others. This network operates similarly to the Associated Press or Reuters, except we focus almost exclusively on issues relating to personal finance. These are not advertorial or paid placements, rather we provide these articles to our partners in most cases for free. These relationships create more awareness of Credit.com in general and they result in more traffic to us as well.

Our Business Model

Credit.com’s journalism is largely supported by an e-commerce business model. Rather than rely on revenue from display ad impressions, Credit.com maintains a financial marketplace separate from its editorial pages. When someone navigates to those pages, and applies for a credit card, for example, Credit.com will get paid what is essentially a finder’s fee if that person ends up getting the card. That doesn’t mean, however, that our editorial decisions are informed by the products available in our marketplace. The editorial team chooses what to write about and how to write about it independently of the decisions and priorities of the business side of the company. In fact, we maintain a strict and important firewall between the editorial and business departments. Our mission as journalists is to serve the reader, not the advertiser. In that sense, we are no different from any other news organization that is supported by ad revenue.

Visitors to Credit.com are also able to register for a free Credit.com account, which gives them access to a tool called The Credit Report Card. This tool provides users with two free credit scores and a breakdown of the information in their Experian credit report, updated twice monthly. Again, this tool is entirely free, and we mention that frequently in our articles, because we think that it’s a good thing for users to have access to data like this. Separate from its educational value, there is also a business angle to the Credit Report Card. Registered users can be matched with products and services for which they are most likely to qualify. In other words, if you register and you find that your credit is less than stellar, Credit.com won’t recommend a high-end platinum credit card that requires an excellent credit score You’d likely get rejected, and that’s no good for you or Credit.com. You’d be no closer to getting a product you need, there’d be a wasted inquiry on your credit report, and Credit.com wouldn’t get paid. These are essentially what are commonly referred to as "targeted ads" in the world of the Internet. Despite all of this, however, even if you never apply for any product, the Credit Report Card will remain free, and none of this will impact how the editorial team reports on credit and credit scores.

Our Owners

Credit.com is owned by Progrexion Holdings Inc. which is the owner and administrator of a number of business related to credit and credit repair, including CreditRepair.com, and eFolks. In addition, Progrexion also provides services to Lexington Law Firm as a third party provider. Despite being owned by Progrexion, it is not the role of the Credit.com editorial team to advocate the use of the company’s other services. In articles, reporters may mention credit repair as an option, for example, but we’ll also be sure to note the various alternatives to that service. Furthermore, you may see ads for credit repair services on Credit.com, but the editorial team isn’t responsible for the creation or implementation of those ads, anymore than reporters for the New York Times or Washington Post are responsible for the ads on their sites.

Your Stories

Lastly, much of what we do is informed by our own experiences as well as the experiences of our readers. We want to tell your stories if you’re interested in sharing them. Please email us at story ideas [at] credit [dot] com with ideas or visit us on Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks for stopping by.

- The Credit.com Editorial Team